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WASHINGTON — Mabel “Muffie” Cabot is back where she began.
After 40 years in Washington, where, as Muffie Brandon, she served as social secretary at the Reagan White House, Cabot is once again a proper Bostonian living in Cambridge, Mass. Married for six years to Louis Wellington Cabot, former chairman of the Cabot Corp. chemical company, she never thinks of returning to Washington to again try her hand as a political hostess.
“I never considered it; I have a wonderful life,’’ says Cabot, back in D.C. recently for a spate of book parties to celebrate “Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China & Mongolia 1921-1925,’’ published by Aperture. The book chronicles her mother’s trek over thousands of miles through remote Asian villages on foot, mule, camel and raft to photograph and catalog rare zoological specimens.
“I was lucky to be in Washington when it was a joyous, marvelously vibrant experience,’’ says Cabot, who’s staying at the Georgetown house of her friend, Joan Bingham. “The city has become very polarized and that’s sad. And it isn’t just social. Intellectually, people aren’t listening to each other. There are conversations that should be taking place over candlelight that aren’t happening.
“We are going through a whole new way of looking at foreign policy and our role in the world, which is preemptive. If we see this country challenged, we don’t tolerate it. This should be a topic of general discussion and debate. But I don’t see people mingling the way they used to.’’
As for the second generation of Bushes to occupy the White House, Cabot says, “There’s a bitterness in the family, probably that George Bush Sr. lost the election to Bill Clinton.’’
But Cabot isn’t in Washington to discuss politics; she’d rather talk about her old New England family, which has plenty of history and secrets of its own.
In writing about her late mother, Janet Wulsin, Cabot sets out on an odyssey to restore her legacy. Wulsin and her second husband, Richard Bryant Hobart, a banker and collector of Chinese art (and Muffie Cabot’s father), tragically committed suicide in 1963 in a car parked outside their Cambridge home. It’s a detail Cabot omits from the discussion of her explorer mother’s death, both in the book and in person.
“My mother was very ill. I’m not going to talk about that,’’ says Cabot, who was 26 with three small children at the time. The death of her parents began a period of tragedy for Cabot: several years later, her sister died of breast cancer; then her first husband, Eric Wentworth, left her. In 1971, she married Henry Brandon, the legendary London Times correspondent and friend of everyone from John F. Kennedy to Henry Kissinger. The couple entertained regularly until his death in 1993 of a stroke. In 1997, Muffie married Brandon’s good friend, Louis Cabot, after his divorce.
It’s what returned Muffie Cabot to Cambridge, Mass., where she spent five years working on the book, transcribing her mother’s letters home while poring through her collection of photographs, letters, diaries, logs and maps bequeathed to the Houghton Library and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
In October, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., will exhibit 40 of the lantern slides, hand-painted color images on glass, from the China expedition Janet Wulsin took with her first husband, explorer Frederick Wulsin, to see long-vanished Mongolian caravans and Tibetan monasteries and villages, as well as from a nine-month raft trip down the Yellow River in central China. The exhibit is expected to travel through 2005 to the Rubin Museum in New York, as well as to Houston, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Ore., and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“I went to the library for five years with my laptop, transcribed hundreds of letters and went through 1,900 photographs. I thought, ‘If my mother could go across the Gobi Desert on the back of a camel for 40 days, I can write this book,’’’ said Cabot, who, in her book’s acknowledgements, thanks her son-in-law, George Stephanopoulos, along with journalist pals Elizabeth Drew, Diane Sawyer and Cokie Roberts, for their support.
As part of her research, she consulted old newspaper clips to check the details of her mother’s traumatic split from Wulsin, who, on an expedition to Mexico in 1929 for Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, filed for a surprise divorce on the grounds of “absolute incompatibility of temperaments.”
Cabot discovered that, shortly before beginning their trip to China, her mother and Frederick Wulsin visited Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and the leading Washington hostess of her day. Longworth introduced the young couple to fellow China-lovers Harry and Susanne Emery, who begged to come along on the trip. Five years after returning to Cambridge, Cabot’s mother read in the newspaper of her husband’s secret Mexican divorce to marry Susanne Emery.
“With this betrayal, not only did she lose her husband but she lost him to her best friend. It was hard for her to learn to trust,’’ says Cabot, who writes that shortly after her mother’s suicide, she and her half brother “discovered a faded photograph under the paper lining of her top drawer of a young man and woman sitting on the steps of a Chinese temple.’’ The picture, reproduced in the front pages of Cabot’s book, is of her mother and her Wulsin in the early days of their marriage beginning their life together as explorers.
“My mother was a product of her times. She was a product of an early New England family where you just did not discuss things of the heart,’’ says Cabot who concedes her mother broke her silence with a series of splashy interviews about the divorce. “It wouldn’t have lifted an eyebrow today, but at the time it was a scandal. She gave an interview about the divorce and she said, ‘I love him and I want him back.’ It was so brave and candid and I thought, ‘Right on, Mama.’’’